An air plane flys over Frobisher Bay in the city of Iqaluit in the Nunavut Territory of Canada on Saturday, March 28, 2009. The national organization that represents Inuit in Canada is calling for air transportation to be designated an essential service in Canada's 51 Inuit communities for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Inuit group calls for air transportation to be designated as essential service

As the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic grounds many of Canada’s air carriers to halt, the country’s national Inuit organization is calling on the federal government to designate air transportation to remote Arctic communities as an essential service.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed says the spread of COVID-19 across Canada has resulted in strict travel regulations, which have in turn decreased flights in and out of Inuit communities across Inuit Nunangat, the Inuit homeland that encompasses nearly one third of Canada’s landmass and its entire Arctic coastline.

In winter and spring, air transportation is the only way to bring in for food, medicine and other essential supplies to all but two of 51 Inuit communities across the Canadian Arctic, and a critical means of travel for patients requiring advanced medical treatment, Obed said.

“Air travel routes in Inuit Nunangat are equivalent to the TransCanada Highway in Southern Canada,” Obed said in a statement. “They are vital links connecting remote regions of the country to each other and to more populous centres.”

Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, speaks at press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Northern airlines are called on for the transport of medical patients and for delivery of COVID-19 swabs, and form a critical backbone to the healthcare system in remote Arctic communities, he added.

“Any delays in this system due to significantly reduced flight schedules poses a significant risk to Inuit health and wellbeing,” said Obed.

While major airlines operating in Inuit Nunangat have pledged a minimum level of passenger and cargo service, with declining revenues, this will become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to maintain, Obed warned.

Emergency support for airlines operating in Inuit Nunangat is necessary to guarantee the ongoing supply of essential goods, as well as timely access to medical care, including in relation to COVID-19, Obed said.

Designation of air transport as an essential service would position these activities as public services that must continue and would allow federal funds to be allocated for the provision of such service, he said.

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